Hilary Mantel’s new novel brings Thomas Cromwell across the finish line

How suitably some writers come named. Muriel Spark, of the scorching short fiction. Judy Blume, of stories of young girls coming of age. Ann Patchett, in whose work families desperately try to repair their tattered ties.

Then there is Hilary Mantel, the author of several books, including an acclaimed suite of set in Tudor England, in whose own name can be discerned her themes — of cloaking and secrecy, the weight of responsibility — and, as it happens, the particular pleasure of submitting to her lavish and gory imagination.

When a hawk makes a kill, it drapes its wings over its prey, concealing it from other predators. This gesture is called “mantling,” and it’s a fine description of reading Mantel’s work. The world is blotted out as you are enveloped in the sweep of a story rich with conquest, conspiracy and mazy human psychology.

The Mirror and the Light is the triumphant capstone to Mantel’s trilogy on Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith who rose to become the consigliere of Henry VIII and architect of the English Reformation. It’s a story that could be the stuff of venerable and fusty historical fiction, but Mantel clears away the cobwebs.

The curtain here rises on Cromwell in 1536. He is 50 years old, rich beyond all his imagining and very much alone. A sickness carried off his wife and two daughters years ago. He is the king’s chief confidant and fixer, although his primary duty is now “to get the king new wives and dispose of the old”. He admits: “I am running out of ladies.”

Henry is desperate for a male heir. He divorced his first wife, Katherine of Aragon — forcing a split between Rome and the Church of England. His second wife, Anne Boleyn, mother of Elizabeth and the charismatic antagonist of the first two novels, has been beheaded for adultery. Cromwell was instrumental in bringing Anne to trial, which we saw in the second volume, Bring Up the Bodies. He rounded up her alleged lovers (including her brother) and squeezed out confessions. Whether they were true or trumped up is never known.

When The Mirror and the Light begins, Cromwell has never been more beloved to the king, who is now free to marry the docile Jane Seymour. It is the beginning of Cromwell’s undoing. A man who has worked in the shadows is now too visible, envied and feared. Tax rebellions spring up in the north. There’s a movement to advance Henry’s first child, Mary, as his heir. Seymour dies, after producing a son, and another wife must be sought. Cromwell chooses one for the king, and chooses badly. Anne of Cleves, selected to broker an alliance with Germany, cannot hide her distaste for Henry. Worry and guilt begin to gnaw at Cromwell. “Dead queens blink at him, from behind their broken mirrors.” Wolves gather outside his door.

This is the longest book in the series, the most mournful — and the slackest. It lacks the formal play (and humour) of Wolf Hall and the ruthless compression of Bring Up the Bodies, which tracked the events of just one year, culminating in Boleyn’s beheading.

The startling, bony style of the first two has been abandoned. The prose is plush, the sentences longer and more adorned, tricked out with little tassels and extended metaphors. Even as certain pages proved a slog, certain scenes repetitive, even as I entertained heretical thoughts about pruning certain sections, or striking them entirely, these choices follow a certain logic.

For more than a decade, Mantel has immersed her readers in the life of Cromwell, writing very close to the historical record and correcting the record where she has deemed necessary. It is too facile to regard the man as a Machiavellian monster of self-interest, she has argued. In his road-building projects that employed the poor lie the foundations of the welfare state. The son of a blacksmith broke with the orthodoxy of the time to insist that poverty was the product of circumstance, not character. But the magnetism of these derives not from its mountain of facts but from its elisions — all those gaps in our knowledge and understanding. How do we square Cromwell’s cruelty with his intense, almost disabling desire to protect the vulnerable, all the lost, “roaring boys” he gave quarter and instruction? Has any character seen women, liked women, enjoyed their conversation and stratagems quite so much as he? Has anyone used them with such cold efficiency?

When we praise characters, we often say they “feel real”. But the enduring characters are always elusive. No more so than with Cromwell, one of literature’s great ambiguous characters. Till the end, he is full of surprises. When the wolves finally catch up to him and haul him off to the Tower of London on charges of treason, the plot and arrest are handled so smoothly, he can’t help but marvel: “You would think he had done it himself.”

© 2020 The New York Times

The Mirror and The Light

Author: Hillary Mantel

Publisher: Fourth Estate/HarperCollins

Price: Rs 799

Pages: 912

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